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Argentine judge: Google, Yahoo must censor searches

About 70 public figures in Argentina are in a court battle with Google and Yahoo over whether search engines can be forced to delete allegedly defamatory material about them.

Caption: Results for a search of soccer star Diego Maradona on Yahoo Argentina only bring up news results and a notification that the search has been filtered.

If an Argentine sports fan tried searching Yahoo Argentina for one of his country's most beloved athletes--soccer star Diego Maradona--these days, he'd be out of luck.

Both Yahoo and Google are locked in a legal battle with dozens of fashion models and other public figures like Maradona over whether the Internet companies should have to censor search results relating to those persons' names.

The result so far: since last year, Internet users have been left with abbreviated search results from Yahoo Argentina and Google Argentina, as a result of temporary restraining orders handed down by Argentine judges.

The restraining orders against Google and Yahoo mean the search companies must censor search results from their Argentine sites for information about the plaintiffs, such as their names. The court orders do not apply to the U.S. sites and

The move effectively holds the search companies responsible for content on other Web sites, a legal maneuver that would not be possible in the United States or the European Union, according to a Google representative. In the United States, federal law generally says that search engines are not responsible for the content of pages they index.

Google first received an injunction to block references to the individuals on its Argentina search engine in mid-2007, after refusing to do so voluntarily, said Alberto Arebalos, Google's director of Latin America global communications and public affairs. A group of about 70 fashion models, represented by the same lawyer, initially asked the Internet company to block all search results with their names with the intent of blocking pornographic sites that used the models' pictures. Google responded that it would only block specific problematic links, provided it could notify users, Arebalos said.

The matter was taken to court, and judges in Argentina have so far sided with the models. Other public figures--including Maradona and Judge María Servini de Cubría--have in recent months sought out the same lawyer to successfully block search results about them on Google and Yahoo as well.

The move amounts to a class action suit against the Internet companies, although there's technically no such thing as a class action suit in Argentina. The lawyer representing all the plaintiffs, Martin Leguizamon Peña, has sought damages between 100,000 and 400,000 pesos for his clients (about $30,000 to more than $121,000).

Both Google and Yahoo have unsuccessfully appealed the restraining orders and are now complying with them while the underlying lawsuits filed by Peña's clients are pending.

Peña probably "thought we'd make a deal out of court, but we don't want to do that because it's not a good deal," Arebalos said. "We will fight because we think this is a good fight."

Multiple restraining orders have been filed for some individuals. In some cases, the restraining orders require the search engines to censor results for certain keywords or URLs. In other instances, however, they call for broad restrictions such as censorship of "scandalous material."

Such broad restraining orders compelled Yahoo to remove all search results for certain plaintiffs such as Maradona, the soccer star. A search for "Diego Maradona" on Yahoo Argentina brings up only news results and a notification that--translated from the Spanish--reads, "On the occasion of a court order sought by private parties, we have been forced to temporarily remove some or all of the search results relating to it."

The notice was implemented early this week, according to Yahoo representative Tracy Schmaler, after it was engineered into the search results.

Arebalos said Google is appealing the court orders because it amounts to "censorship if we block all references to a person, because a lot of those can be lawful."

"Our position always has been we are not going to be the censor of the Internet," Arebalos said. "If you go to a newsstand and tell the owner he's responsible for reading every paper and finding the articles that could impact somebody, that doesn't make any sense. We are the newsstand."

While laws in the U.S. and E.U. make it clear that whoever posts content to the Internet is responsible for it, Arebalos said, no such laws exist in Argentina.

Google is working with Argentine government officials and the congress, Arebalos said, to fill the "legal vacuum" that allows for Internet companies to be held responsible for content. Other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Colombia, have made progress on that front, he said.

Arebalos said he did not know of any other cases in which a search engine had been asked by an individual to censor search results with his or her name. Searches have been limited in some other countries, however. German law, for instance, has forbidden searches for neo-Nazi material, and in France, auction sites have been barred from allowing the sale of Nazi memorabilia. In the U.S., copyright holders have forced Google to remove search results.

Google and Yahoo recently joined forces with other companies and human rights groups to create the Global Network Initiative, a framework for communications technology companies to follow in response to laws in various countries that may interfere with an Internet user's privacy or freedom of expression. The guidelines are intended for these types of situations, Schmaler said, and encourage principles such as transparency when complying with local law.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.